NHSnet suppliers could suffer financial penalties because of the under-performance of the troubled health service intranet.
Department of Health director of planning Alasdair Liddell told this week's HC2000 healthcare computing conference that contracts with NHSnet suppliers, including BT, Syntegra and Cable & Wireless, have been negotiated to include strict service-level agreements with financial penalties for under-provision.
Last week Computer Weekly reported several outages to the NHS and predicted an announcement on the issue. A lack of service-level agreements and penalties in NHSnet supplier contracts has concerned the medical profession and independent research organisations like the King's Fund.
Liddell said enormous effort had gone into improving the performance of NHSnet. The connection of GPs has been dependent on the underlying quality of the service, he said. Last year the Department of Health failed to meet its own deadline of connecting all computerised practices to the network by the start of 2000. Both BT and Cable & Wireless have made major investments to improve the service, he said.
Bill Clark, head of IT with Somerset Health Authority, welcomed the move towards stricter control of NHSnet suppliers. He said his authority, which now has around 60% of its GPs connected to NHSnet, has experienced difficulties with the network, mainly centred around the message-handling service. However, he said the system was improving. "There has been teething trouble, but it is coming to an end," he said.
There will also be a Web-based national registry for e-mail addresses on the network for the first time, Liddell announced.
Nigel Bell, chief executive of the NHS Information Authority, said this should help resolve the problem of incorrectly addressed messages being bounced around inside the system, and eventually returned to the sender.
GPnet, the programme to link general practices to NHSnet, will now have a wider brief, dubbed Project Connect, with an aim of creating greater connectivity between GPs, health authorities and local trusts on the network.